There are so many things I liked about Absynthe by Brendan Bellecourt (a.k.a. Bradley Beaulieu writing under a pseudonym for his first foray into Science Fiction) that when I sat down to write this, I struggled to organize my thoughts into a coherent review. I had this overwhelming urge to gush and simply list all the disparate pieces of this book that resonated with me. But upon further reflection (and after tempering my initial impulse), I realized that these various elements all contribute to a singular purpose that can be summarized quite succinctly: to present the reader with a uniquely expansive and unexpectedly harsh world that makes the book’s simple message about love and the essence of humanity that much more profound. I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 07/12/2021
STAR RATING: 4/5 ✶
Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive, shell-shocked veteran, remembers little of the Great War. Ten years later, when he is caught in a brutal attack on a Chicago speakeasy, Liam is saved by Grace, an alluring heiress who’s able to cast illusions. Though the attack appears to have been committed by the hated Uprising, Grace believes it was orchestrated by Leland De Pere–Liam’s former commander and the current President of the United States.
Meeting Grace unearths long-buried memories. Liam’s former squad, the Devil’s Henchmen, was given a serum to allow telepathic communication, transforming them into a unified killing machine. With Grace’s help, Liam begins to regain his abilities, but when De Pere learns of it, he orders his militia to eliminate Liam at any cost.
But Liam’s abilities are expanding quickly. When Liam turns the tables and digs deeper into De Pere’s plans, he discovers a terrible secret. The same experiment that granted Liam’s abilities was bent toward darker purposes. Liam must navigate both his enemies and supposed allies to stop the President’s nefarious plans before they’re unleashed on the world. And Grace is hiding secrets of her own, secrets that could prove every bit as dangerous as the President’s.
More often than not, when I find myself captivated by a speculative fiction novel, intriguing world-building plays an especially significant role. I can point to several novels that have caught my interest due to their unique and imaginative world-building, and to this day these books stand out in my memory for their ability to transport me to a world so unlike anything I might have expected. The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams and An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors by Curtis Craddock immediately come to mind; Absynthe now falls high on this list.
Imagine if WWI had taken place on American soil, the final, definitive battle on the shores of Lake Michigan in a suburb of Milwaukee. And then imagine that WWI warfare was augmented with mechanikal exoskeletons called Hoppers and performance-enhancing biotech. Absynthe provides readers with a well-crafted and vivid “decopunk” aesthetic, inventing a world where tommy guns and flights of absynthe in jazz-filled speakeasies exist alongside automata with human intelligence, zeppelins, and bullet trains that connect Chicago with the new capital of Nova Solis. The world-building is rich and encompassing from pinstripe suits and flapper dresses to the Saint Lawrence Pact of nations allied against the US. It transports you to a world with roots in our reality, but wholly reimagined, providng ample setting for the themes of the mysterious and winding plot.
(Aside: As a Milwaukee native, this book resonated with me in a very special way. If I said this book’s setting didn’t have anything to do with my interest, it would be a bold-faced lie! I never realized how satisfying it would be to read a genre novel set in the city in which I grew up and still utterly adore. The local references to places like Lake Geneva, the Kinnickinnic River, Whitefish Bay, and Dinkel’s were like a warm hug of familiarity that I didn’t know I needed.)
But it is also a harsh world in which veterans are used and discarded, where soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress, their mortal wounds often healed with mechanikal appendages and devices, citizens are injected with mysterious serums, and factions within the US undermine the trust of the government and each other. Bellencourt presents the evils of war and humanizes them through the struggles of his characters; Liam’s constant flashbacks, Clay’s inability to accept a life bound to mechaniks, and the revelation of Alistair’s true nature all contribute to a moral commentary on the true cost of war in the humanity that is lost in its aftermath.
The plot is a fast-paced mystery in which the main character Liam struggles to piece together the truth surrounding the tensions between, and intentions of, the government he fought for and the Uprising that is helping restore the vestiges of his shattered memory. The serums, their application, their evolution, and their interplay create an evocative SciFi plot that will have you theorizing and reading well into the night! As the truth about the serums is slowly revealed, and the pieces of the puzzle start to come together, Liam begins to question his actions and those of his leaders, the nature of his most important relationships, and ultimately what is needed to defeat the rising evil that threatens them all. His relationships are powerful in their diversity – he takes comfort from caring for his Nana, he’s devoted to his best friend Morgan, and he develops romantic feelings for Colette. But at the core of each relationship is an unconditional love, something that defines them as completely human and ultimately provides their deliverance. I found Liam’s realization and the subsequent ending heartfelt, infused with a message I think we all need right now.
Creative and intricate world-building and strong themes delivered through a griping and fast-paced plot are sure to capture any reader of Beaulieu’s debut Science Fiction novel. If I’ve captured your interest as much as this book captured mine, you can find Absynthe on Goodreads here, and pre-order it via Amazon here.